Not being a sneering asshole buys you a lot of goodwill.
Consider the contrast between Tony Dungy and Matt Birk. Both fit the hometown hero mold and are thus positioned to receive lifelong exaltations from fans and media: Dungy, the pioneering Black QB for the Minnesota Gophers who’d go on to become the first Black Super Bowl-winning head coach with the 2006 Indianapolis Colts; Birk, the brainy Cretin-Derham Hall lineman who’d matriculate to Harvard, be drafted by the Vikings, and win a Super Bowl with the 2012 Baltimore Ravens.
But in terms of personality influencing PR, the chasm between the two Minnesota sports greats is profound.
Dungy has always carried himself with a fatherly, churchy pleasantness—think Ned Flanders on quaaludes. In 2021, he was described as “The Conscience of the NFL,” which is about as loaded as chief ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, but clearly meant as a high compliment. Birk, meanwhile, let his true colors show as he sneered, japed, and scoffed through last year’s gubernatorial contest as Scott Jensen’s lieutenant governor nominee.
Undergirding all those trappings, however, are the glassy-eyed Jesus-freak beliefs that bubble over from deep within both men. Neither has kept their religiously rooted prejudices a secret, but, through some mysterious churn of personality, media coverage, and public perception, Dungy has largely enjoyed his noble preacher-like perch while Birk got rightly lambasted for saying pro-choice advocates are “always going to the rape card” and “some women used to not be able to vote in this country… now we let them drive.”
Last night on Twitter, Dungy’s Teflon resistance to meaningful accountability may have finally worn off. Responding to a bad-faith tweet about menstrual products in Minnesota school bathrooms, Dungy tweeted to the right-wing grievance mill Daily Wire: “That’s nothing. Some school districts are putting litter boxes in the school bathrooms for students who identify as cats. Very important to address every student’s needs.” Dungy later deleted the tweet.
As you might recall, Dr. Jensen perpetuated that categorically false urban myth last summer. Dungy isn’t running for office, but he is someone with a massive following who carries himself as Serious Thinker. On the Davie Brown Index, a celeb popularity ranking compiled annually by a Dallas marketing/polling firm, Dungy has placed alongside Meryl Streep and Steve Jobs. You’d think he wouldn’t be swept into the same embarrassing conspiracy currents as your MAGA uncle from St. Cloud.
Then again, if you had peered one inch past Tony Dungy’s righteous veneer, you’d already be aware of his decades of biblically rooted bigotry. A cursory search for the words “gay” or “abortion” on Dungy’s curiously freewheeling Twitter page reveals exactly the kind Birkian of guy he is. (Hilariously, one of the 152 accounts he follows is the PR arm of his employer, NBC Sports.)
Other examples Dungy’s un-Christlike behavior are more formally documented.
In 2007, Dungy received the “Friend of the Family” award from the Focus on the Family-affiliated Indiana Family Institute. Past recipients include former Vice President Mike Pence, the flip-flopping Trump toady whose anti-abortion extremism can even rankle some Republicans. Months later, the Queer Student Cultural Center protested a speech Dungy delivered to the University of Minnesota Alumni association.
Dungy’s track record of homophobia is long and unambiguous. Working as an analyst in 2014, he said he wouldn’t draft Michael Sam, who’d become the NFL’s first active openly gay player. (That same year he told NBC viewers he’d welcome convicted fiancée beater Ray Rice aboard.) “Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should not have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it,” he said ahead of the draft. Writing in response, Star Tribune sports columnist Jim Souhan nailed it:
“How would young Tony Dungy have felt if the University of Minnesota had adopted that mind-set toward black quarterbacks?…
This was 1973, less than 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, and five years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. For many Division 1 programs, and certainly NFL teams, black quarterbacks were ridiculously stereotyped as good athletes who couldn’t necessarily run a passing offense. Not until 1988 did a black quarterback win a Super Bowl…
That kind of backward, cowardly thinking would have kept Branch Rickey from signing Jackie Robinson, or Dungy from taking up the cause of a dog killer named Michael Vick… Supporting a trailblazer requires courage. [Gophers coach Murray] Warmath and the University of Minnesota had it. Dungy seems to have misplaced his.”
Dungy will headline March for Life’s “Next Steps: Marching Forward in a Post-Roe America” tomorrow in Washington, D.C. He’s set to appear at “Men’s Advance,” a conference hosted by viciously anti-gay televangelist Andrew Wommack, this coming March. And, as pointed out by friend of Racket Norm Charlatan, Dungy is afforded the freedom to work the hate circuit while still enjoying a public-facing career on network TV.
It’s time to start seeing coach for who he is: A less coarse, equally prejudiced Matt Birk with a much, much larger audience.